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The Lost Jewish Culture


I count at least seven great Jewish Diasporas: Babylon-Persia; Hellenistic Alexandria; Muslim and Christian Spain, including Provence-Catalonia; Renaissance Italy; Eastern Europe– Russia; Austria-Hungary together with Germany; the United States. Peter Cole’s The Dream of the Poem devotes itself to the crown of Jewry’s literary achievement in Muslim and Christian Spain: the blooming of a Hebrew poetry that, at the very best, could rival the magnificences of Scripture such as “Song of the Red Sea” (Exodus 15:1b–18), the “War Song of Deborah and Barak” (Judges 5:1–31), and “David’s Lamentation over Saul and Jonathan” (2 Samuel 1:19–27).

The central figures in Cole’s anthology are great by any relevant standards: Shmu’el HaNagid (called the Nagid), Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, Moshe Ibn Ezra, Yehuda HaLevi—all of Muslim Spain (circa 950–circa 1140)—and Avraham Ibn Ezra, Yehuda Alharizi, and Todros Abulafia who lived in Christian Spain and Provence (circa 1140–1452). These seven poets are fully the equal of such Spanish Renaissance poets as Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, and San Juan de la Cruz. Luis De León was, incidentally, of a converso family, or Jews compelled in 1492 to become Christians or be exiled. He edited the mystical prose of Saint Teresa of Ávila. Teresa herself, partly Jewish by descent, had to endure investigation by the Inquisition, while Luis de León was imprisoned some four years.

If he had been born just two generations earlier, Luis de León would have been another of the canonical Hebrew poets of Spain. But, with that paradox, I turn to the history of Hebrew poetry, first in Muslim Spain and then in the darker Christian Spain. That “darker” refers to the persecution of Jews and Moors, but the persecution in some sense extended to most of the Spaniards in Christian Spain from the seventeenth century on to the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

The Muslim conquest of Spain began in 711 under the Ummayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus. They sent an army of mainly North African Berbers into the Iberian peninsula, which was then ruled by Visigoths who had long since replaced the Romans, under whom Jews first had come to Spain. In the second half of the eighth century the heroic military leader Abd al-Rahman I gained control over Arabic Spain, or al-Andalus, and set up his capital in Córdoba, where his benign treatment of Jews (and Christians) led to their thorough transition to Arabic culture, and helped make Córdoba an extraordinary urban civilization throughout the tenth century.

The extraordinary rebirth of major Hebrew poetry among the Andalusian Jews, brilliantly set out by Peter Cole, needs to be seen, in part, as a response to their complex linguistic situation. In Roman Spain their daily language primarily had been Latin with some remnants of Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. In Muslim Iberia they mostly adopted Arabic, the international lingua franca. At the same time, a modified Latin, generally called Romance, evolved into the Old Castilian that would become the main spoken language of Christian Spain, including the Sephardi Jews living there; in the diaspora after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, it was called Ladino (a word for Latin). In Muslim Spain, however, the daily Jewish language, both learned and vernacular, became almost entirely Arabic. Without Arabic poetry and its traditions, the Hebrew poets of Spain could not have come into being. A kind of Judeo-Arabic, composed in Hebrew characters, became the universal Jewish means of writing—except for poetry, which was written in Hebrew. There remained an archaic biblical element in common discourse in Spain—but this was an upper-class phenomenon, and the poets are not likely to have spoken Hebrew, which thus became a literary as well as a sacred language. The precursor texts to the great Hebrew poetry of Muslim Spain were therefore a strange emulsion of the Hebrew Bible and classical Arabic literature.

The elevated style of Hebrew poetry common to the major writers of early Muslim Spain—HaNagid, Ibn Gabirol, Moshe Ibn Ezra, and HaLevi—was abrogated by the changed political situation after 1146, when Berber Fundamentalists captured the southern Iberian peninsula, and the Jews fled north to Christian Provence and Spain, where they were no longer surrounded by spoken Arabic. Hebrew then became the prevalent written language, not only in poetry but in daily affairs, for later poets such as Avraham Ibn Ezra, Alharizi, Todros Abulafia, and their successors down to the Expulsion in 1492. Sublimity was replaced by a language resembling what the scholar Dan Pagis characterized as “a tapestry of medieval life, both generally and specially Jewish.” If there is a more Chaucerian flavor to the poetry I also feel a sense of loss. Yehuda HaLevi seems to have been the final stand of a high rhetoric worthy of the Hebrew Bible.


Peter Cole, an American poet living in Jerusalem, is a skilled translator of Arabic as well as of Hebrew poetry. His book’s title is taken from its epigraph, which is a poignant observation by the most eminent of living Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish:

Andalus…might be here or there, or anywhere…a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture…. It is not only that there was a Jewish–Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar…. Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.

The “similar fates” were that both Muslims and Jews faced a choice between conversion or enforced exile when Christians reconquered Spain, and the option of conversion proved to be fraudulent. Both Jewish and Muslim converts were continually regarded as backsliders: to be investigated, tortured, and frequently burned alive. Christians in Spain produced no tradition of tolerance of other faiths, since they saw Jews as recalcitrant unbelievers and Christ-killers and regarded Muslims as unregenerate heretics. In Islamic al-Andalus, Muslim rulers regarded Jews and Christians as People of the Book, the dhimmi, and asked only that they abandon secular power to Muslims. In theory, that is still Islam’s position toward Jews and Christians.

It seems not at all accidental that Part One of Cole’s book, which collects the best Hebrew poetry of the roughly two centuries of Muslim Spain, between the tenth and twelfth centuries, is far stronger aesthetically than the 350 years of Jewish literary achievement that followed in Christian Spain and Provence. The sense of exile increases in the poetry of Christian Spain, and an aura of cultural decline surrounds even the major figures. Al-Andalus, in Cole’s judgment, had made possible a kind of Jewish “cultural redemption”:

For in opening their lives to the entire expanse of Greco-Arabic and Hebrew learning, the dictionally pure Jewish poets of Cordoba, Granada, and Saragossa carried out an act of profound, if paradoxical, cultural redemption. As they translated both the essence of their knowledge and the effects of Arabic poetry into an innovative Hebrew verse—and in the process risked loss of linguistic and religious self to immersion in the foreign—the Hebrew poets of Spain found, or founded, one of the most powerful languages of Jewish expression postbiblical literature has known.

That eloquently balanced observation justifies Cole’s description of the Arab Andalusian period as a Golden Age of Hebrew poetry, and the subsequent Christian era as a Silver Age. Cole has few illusions about “tolerance” in either society, and he declines to idealize the Jewish experience even in Muslim Spain. The catastrophe of 1492 was uniquely a Roman Catholic imposition upon the Jews (and “Moors”). But there had also been various debacles for the Jews in al-Andalus, including a Muslim popular uprising in Granada in 1066 that became a large-scale massacre of Jews.

The Dream of the Poem touches often upon the political dilemmas of the Jews of Sefarad, a Hebrew place-name that in the Bible evidently means Sardis, capital of Lydia and the cultural center of Asia Minor from about 650 to 550 BCE. But from the eighth century onward, the Jews took Sefarad to refer to Spain. The greatest of twentieth-century Catalan poets, Salvador Espriu, used it as his own word for Spain in ironic protest against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The darker irony is that Franco believed himself to be of Jewish origin, while Espriu merely identified himself with the Sephardis exiled from Spain, or incinerated there as Marranos.

One truly lasting benefit that the rise of Islam gave to Jews was the transformation of a mostly agricultural people into skilled artisans, merchants, and eventually moneylenders. Here too there is an irony: Koran 9:29 called upon the Peoples of the Book to pay financial tribute to their Muslim overlords. Through what became standard exegesis, the consequence was a high rate of taxation, difficult for agricultural laborers to sustain, which impelled Jews to pursue other kinds of work.

The literary culture of Cole’s Hebrew poets was at least as much Arabic as it was biblical, or rather Jewish religious tradition fused miraculously with Greco-Arabic modes of thought, feeling, and expression. Since the Romance element in Spanish and Provençal literature also augmented this fusing process, the results are perpetually astonishing. The seven great poets of Cole’s Dream provoke love in any reader of Hebrew literature; and by another miracle of Cole’s own creation, in any reader of little or no Hebrew who directly confronts the work of this major poet-translator.

How could this Hebrew Renaissance have first occurred in medieval Muslim and then Christian Spain? The aesthetic splendor of Arabic poetry, from well before the Koran through that scripture’s prose poetry—an inadequate term—on to the Muslim verse and rhymed prose of al-Andalus, was the immediate catalyst for the Hebrew poetry of Spain. What modern scholars in Spain called convivencia is the background for the literary miracle. “Dwelling together,” the word’s literal meaning, is carefully distinguished by Cole from what we call “tolerance” these days. Convivencia implies mutual influences that cover the distance from creative misreadings to dangerous rivalries. The Muslims protected the Peoples of the Book, but maintained strict sovereignty over them. When the Christians reconquered the Iberian peninsula they enforced the second-class status of the Jews and Muslims even more strongly, until at last the Sephardis and Moors were either exiled or compelled to submit to dubious conversions. Cole, with his judicious balance, gives the best account of convivencia I have encountered:

At its best, the culture gave Jews greater religious, social, economic, and intellectual freedom than they knew in any other medieval (non-Muslim) society; at its worst, it led to heavy taxation and serious oppression. When the bottom fell out of it, forced conversion, emigration, and slaughter weren’t long in coming. Its limitations notwithstanding, convivencia has been described as the defining issue in the history of al-Andalus, and it resulted in a major renaissance of Arabic and Hebrew literature and learning, and in an early flowering of Spanish culture.

Religious, social, economic, and intellectual freedom: without political power, these eventually could not suffice, and catastrophe ensued. What vanished was a Hebraic cultural cosmos, which has been equaled only a few times in the three-thousand-year history of the Jews. The Andalusian miracle mutated into the tragedy of Sefarad, and yet it had lasted for more than half a millennium, while the period of major Jewish poetry in German only endured from Heinrich Heine’s arrival in Paris (1831) to Paul Celan’s suicide at barely fifty (1970). Five hundred and forty years awesomely overwhelms one hundred and forty, but then the literary achievement of German-speaking Jewry was more in prose than in verse.

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